A poster noting European missile locations, New York © Anne B. Zill | National Museum of American History

Vladimir Putin accompanied the invasion of Ukraine with the threat that “whoever tries to hinder us” will see consequences “you have never seen in your history.” Days later, he announced the movement of Russian nuclear forces to “high alert.” Nuclear dread was back.

As Putin’s army became unexpectedly stalemated by valiant Ukrainian resistance over subsequent weeks, the fearsome question posed itself: Where would Putin have stopped if the U.S. nuclear deterrent, still on a hair trigger and safeguarding Europe, decidedly including the former Warsaw Pact nations, had not been maintained? A “hedge” after all.

But then, as the Ukrainian forces held on, and even began to push the Russian invaders back, at one point sinking the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the question of a stalemated Putin’s next moves suddenly seemed, well, radioactive.

NATO intelligence, and nuclear experts more generally, faced the once unthinkable possibility that the Kremlin leader, pressed on the ground in Ukraine and threatened with a sanctions-induced economic collapse in Russia, might have recourse to nuclear use. The head of the CIA, in a break with the downplaying discretion of most security experts in the West, openly acknowledged being “very concerned” about the possibility of a nuclear war with Russia.

And why not? It was one thing to prevent Putin from winning in Ukraine, but another altogether to force him into a mortifying defeat. And not only Putin. Russia had suddenly found itself banished from the global order, with the prospect that, in the wired world of a post-industrial information age, a culture-killing alienation would define the once proud nation’s future.

In Putin, the West was ambushed by the jolting preview of an absolute nightmare—that, facing a catastrophic humiliation, including the near certain collapse of his own power, the supremely narcissistic ruler, a Russian Samson identifying the state with himself, would bring the whole temple down. Contemplating a nuclear Armageddon in 2018, Putin had been blasé: “Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world,” he said. “But I’m a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?”

But even short of ordering an all-out, last ditch strategic assault on targets in NATO nations, Putin, informed by the Kremlin’s openly articulated military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” was clearly capable of resorting to the firing of one or more so-called “tactical nuclear weapons” in the war zone. Only fools thought Putin’s taboo-breaking threats were empty.

Meanwhile, the blurry distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” offered little comfort to an increasingly alarmed broader population, especially in Europe, where the immediate consequences of any fission weapon’s use would come with massive dangers, even if the diabolical escalation to a trans-continental nuclear exchange were avoided. A senior American general—the head of Strategic Command, no less—insisted that the distinction between tactical and strategic nukes was so slippery as not to be meaningful, and any use of the former would almost certainly unleash the latter.

As the war in Ukraine ground on through the spring into the summer, my first blast of nuclear dread cooled, and the U.S. and NATO nations, properly unintimidated by Putin’s apocalyptic threats, continually escalated the level of military support for the valiant Ukrainian resisters.

Still, the threats had to be considered. If Putin were, for example, to escalate hoping to de-escalate, by using, say, low-yield nuclear weapons against Ukrainian battlefield positions or hold-out Ukrainian cities, that would certainly have prompted a devastating response from Washington and its allies. President Biden, in a careful guest essay published in June in the New York Times, confronted the question directly, and, departing from standard Cold War swagger, declined to threaten a tit-for-tat nuclear response to Russian nuclear use, promising only “severe consequences.” Such consequences could include, for example, the sinking of Russia’s entire Black Sea fleet or the immediate obliteration of Russia’s ground forces in Ukraine.

That, of course, would put the ball squarely in Putin’s court, from which would come the answer to the question of precisely how suicidal the Russian leader was. The bottom line here, decisively drawn in early 2022, was that “the fate of the earth,” as Jonathan Schell had called it, was now for one single Russian to determine.

Of course, when faced with the human future having fallen into the bloody hands of an apparently irrational despot, I shared the global concern. But in my case, the urgency had quite personal resonance.

All at once, my many writings on the subject of nuclear abolition seemed glib to me. Drawing on my book House of War, for example, I’d written a play about James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense and the chief sponsor of an early Cold War embrace of an atomic bomb monopoly as the key to a permanent dominance over the Kremlin. In the late 1940s, most of the U.S. national security establishment assumed it would be years before Moscow obtained the bomb. But all too soon—a bare four years after Hiroshima, decades ahead of most intelligence estimates—the Soviets proved capable of detonating an atomic device of their own, ending the American advantage. That was the starter’s gun of the nuclear arms race—and would have been the realization of James Forrestal’s worst nightmare, had he lived to see it. Only three months before the Soviet blast, the Secretary of Defense had snapped in his Pentagon office, breaking under the weight of a paranoia both political and personal. He soon jumped to his death from the fourteenth floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. 

In the denouement of my play, it falls to Forrestal’s wife Josephine—a one-time showgirl reimagined as an American Cassandra—to warn of an imminent nuclear war. She breaks the fourth wall to excoriate the audience for willfully blind complacency, transforming them from witnesses to perpetrators: the coming nuclear holocaust is their doing.

Josephine’s blazing indictment scorches the theater-goers themselves: “James V. Forrestal, driven by demons no one understands to this day,” she screeches, “may have set this monster loose, but who kept it running? You did! The American people! With your Truman, your LeMay, your Dulles Brothers, your Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. Monster-minders all! You blame your feckless leaders, but it was you, who never challenged them on nukes, or forced a change. The endless escalation, the arms race against ourselves! The Pentagon unleashed! By you!”

The character’s rage was, in fact, the playwright’s. It was mine. 

The self-righteousness of Josephine’s accusation—as if the government figures among whom her husband was preeminent had less responsibility for the decades of nuclear nihilism than the mass of passive citizens who had lacked any real knowledge of what was long being done in their names—strikes me in the re-reading as rooted in my own self-righteousness. Since 1945 until now, America’s rulers have presided over a malign impersonal dynamic, driven by the economic, political, and cultural forces of which Eisenhower warned. If those unseen forces, accumulating in combination a kind of self-perpetuating critical mass, had consistently overwhelmed the possibility of moral refusal by individual leaders—even peace-minded presidents like John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter—how were disempowered civilians supposed to have influenced, much less halted, the endless stockpiling of nuclear arms and the Pentagon’s ongoing exacerbation of nuclear danger?

As a self-anointed man of peace, was I claiming for myself a place in the saddle of the moral high-horse from which to vent—not at an out-of-reach power structure and its unaccountable nuclear priesthood, but at an anonymous assemblage of any nuclear war’s certain victims? I accused them of culpable denial when, in fact, their political detachment derived not from purposeful deflection of the peril, but from the way in which the national security establishment had ideologized its deterrence strategy to the point of abstraction. American citizens could hardly recognize the truth of the likely future. Who was I to wag my finger in the faces of people who only wanted a night out at the theater?

Take another example: in 1999—so, just as the decisive Clinton years drew to a close—I smugly praised the aged national security maven Paul Nitze for his end-of-life repudiation of the entire American nuclear strategy he had done more to create than anyone else. In an astonishing abandonment of realpolitik, the 92-year-old Nitze proposed that the United States unilaterally and immediately dismantle its nuclear arsenal because, as he wrote in the New York Times, nukes are “a threat mostly to ourselves.”

Really? How was it that nuclear abolitionists like me had been endlessly content to just wish the weapons away, as if a nuclear-free world would not need a massively re-imagined structure of international security, new modes of crisis management, an agreed global regime that would check powerful nations from their inbuilt aggressiveness, while offering vulnerable nations sufficient security guarantees that would make their own acquisition of nukes unnecessary?

The nuclear abolition movement—by simply deleting nukes from a world order otherwise left intact—never got serious about authentic political argument, the realities of international law, or the plain obligation of thinking a problem all the way through to its hardest part.

The “denial” of the national security establishment and of the broader population, which never embraced the urgent anti-nuke cause of activists like me, might have been rooted less in the amoral detachment of which I had accused them than in an implicit and quite rational understanding of the transcendent scale of the social and political transformations required by nuclear elimination.

A wholly reimagined United Nations, anyone? An agreed universal surrender of sacrosanct elements of national sovereignty? A rollback of free enterprise innovations rife with completely unregulated prompt-strike systems like hypersonic missiles, cyber-warfare technologies, and space-based weapons? A wholly reinvented system of international crisis management? Why not pie in the sky?

The epitome of this callow vanity was reached in the pre-inaugural rhetoric of Barack Obama, who side-stepped all such complexities with the mantra “Yes we can.” Yet in his eight years as president, when it came to advancing the nuclear abolition he had advocated in Berlin in 2008—No, he couldn’t. “This is the moment,” he said. No, it wasn’t.

More immediately, if Paul Nitze and I had had our way in 1999, with the United States marking the new millennium—and Vladimir Putin’s coming to power in Moscow—by unilaterally disarming, what would have kept Putin’s 2022 war in Ukraine from igniting a Europe-wide conflagration—World War III with a vengeance?

And yet.

The war in Ukraine was the second time in five years that, even if only momentarily during its early weeks, a tsunami of nuclear dread had broken through the universal bulwark of denial about the danger. I say second time because the fear of a world-shaking nuclear attack had also surfaced powerfully in August of 2017. That is when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Not long after that ultimatum, Trump’s on-again-off-again puppy love with Pyongyang’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un warmed up, allowing the global tide of alarm to recede, but Trump’s Pentagon soon unveiled a new nuclear doctrine that explicitly proposed a possible first use of nuclear weapons in response to unspecified “non-nuclear” attacks, an unprecedented expansion of the president’s war-starting power.

And not just any president, but Trump. The prospect of an “unhinged” American commander-in-chief with unfettered authority over the nation’s nuclear arsenal prompted Democrats in Congress to introduce legislation seeking to limit that power—first a bill introduced in 2019 by Senator Elizabeth Warren renouncing any possible American first use of nuclear weapons, effectively stripping Trump of nuclear initiative. Warren’s bill went nowhere. It was followed, in the closing days of the Trump administration, by a bill introduced by Senator Edward Markey—when the outgoing president seemed increasingly capable of starting a war as part of his desperate and illegal clinging to office—that mandated approval by Congress for the launching of any nuclear weapon. In those same last days of Trump’s rule, Pentagon chiefs openly spoke of disobeying him if he ordered the start of a war, and especially if he gave any command for nuclear use.

At the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying, “This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”

It did not come to that. Trump left office without pressing the button. But with those who’d been terrified by his absolute power able to breathe again, nuclear business as usual promptly resumed. Formerly urgent legislation restricting presidential nuclear authority fell into limbo, even as Democrats took control of Congress. Apparently, Warren’s, Markey’s and Pelosi’s fears, like everyone’s, were assuaged.

Some took note in this Trump-induced frenzy of the way in which such loose talk about nukes—both Trump’s and that of the freaked out—was already eroding the single most reliable safeguard against their use, which has been the nuclear taboo, a de facto prohibition undergirding global politics. Since 1945, militaries and nations in possession of the nuclear arsenals have declined ever to unlock, load, and launch them less for strategic or tactical reasons than for moral ones.

Beginning with President Harry S. Truman’s acceptance in 1951 of a humiliating stalemate in Korea rather than accede to General Douglas MacArthur’s demand to use the atomic bomb, these weapons, for all of their other complications, have been treated as simply beyond the pale of human behavior. 

But that seemed to be changing now. Clearly, Putin’s recourse to nuclear saber-rattling served the purpose of keeping third parties from directly engaging his war with Ukraine, and in that sense he was already “using” his nuclear arsenal, as both the U.S. and Russia had done previously at moments of high tension, even if the weapons cache was still locked. Threats like those the Russian dictator made, and the broad perception that he was capable of carrying them out, had the effect of bringing nukes back into the open center of power, making them more “thinkable” than they had been in decades.

But this weakening of the nuclear anathema was not just the result of the rhetoric of crazies like Trump or chest thumping autocrats like Putin, India’s Narendra Modi, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Two generations of human beings have little or no memory of what it is to cower in fear of a coming atomic attack, much less of news that two cities in Japan had been incinerated and radiated. In the minds of many, the bomb today is not what it was decades ago.

What I have been calling nuclear denial now comes hand-in-hand with nuclear complacency—or something worse. Recent studies of popular attitudes show that majorities or near-majorities of citizens in democracies of the West, including the United States, can imagine approving the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, even with possible casualties counted in six or seven figures—millions of people dead. As one observer put it, “That is not a way people think about something which is truly taboo.”

Immediately upon taking office after Trump’s term ended, President Joseph Biden ordered a review of the nation’s nuclear policies. Beginning early in his long service as a U.S. Senator, Biden had been a staunch advocate of nuclear arms reduction and the complete end of explosive nuclear testing. He had embraced the principle of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. As vice president, he had firmly sought to advance President Obama’s early, if ultimately fruitless, commitment to advance the elimination of nuclear weapons altogether. Many expected that, as president, Biden would implement major reforms of U.S. nuclear policy: taking weapons off the hair trigger, resuming serious reductions of the arsenal, eliminating Trump-era plans to reinvent it, and reinvigorating arms control structures. But for a year, not much happened.

Then, in March 2022, Biden’s “Nuclear Posture Review” was finally published by the Pentagon, and astoundingly, it protected the long-standing nuclear status quo, including the policy of “first use” that Biden had been expected to overturn. As the review was published, Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, made its meaning explicit, arguing that the United States had an urgent new need for more nuclear weapons. Speaking of Russian and Chinese arsenals, he said, “We do not necessarily have to match weapon for weapon. But it is clear what we have today is the absolute minimum.” In the updated nuclear doctrine no move was made to limit the president’s unlimited and sole authority to ignite Armageddon. Even after the big reveal of the Trump years, nuclear dread was once again replaced by nuclear denial. Biden’s “Nuclear Posture Review” was made public a month into Putin’s raging war against Ukraine.

As the Russian forces were stymied and pushed back in Ukraine, and as President Zelenskyy pressed ever more stridently for escalations of Western support, President Biden insisted that the U.S. and NATO would strictly adhere to limits in supporting Kyiv for the sake of avoiding World War III, but the Pentagon’s simultaneously released NPR assertion of an American commitment to the nuclear status quo amounted to a subtle version of Russia’s nuclear posturing. No more nuclear reduction, not now! Indeed, within weeks of the formal unveiling of the “2022 Nuclear Posture Review,” reports came of the Pentagon’s Ukraine-induced move away even from that status quo to an “extra urgency,” as one insider’s report had it, “in developing a new generation of doomsday weapons.”

With the war in Ukraine as a stimulus, the Pentagon’s long sidelined nuclear hawks were suddenly getting their wish list with a frantic next round of U.S. nuclear-development escalation. It involved a futuristic crop of long-range bombers, formerly regarded as redundant, as well as the replacement of aging intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), the 1970s-era Minuteman III, with the brand new Sentinel—a reversal of earlier arms control initiatives that had begun to phase out such land-based systems altogether.

As sitting ducks in buried silos, these missiles must be instantly launched on first warning to avoid being lost in a first strike, which makes them inherently destabilizing. The Air Force has dubbed the new Sentinel ICBM the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent,” yet deterrence, for all its obsolescence, is more than maintained by the far more secure and hard-to-target submarine-based missile, the Trident II. Each of fourteen Ohio class submarines carries two dozen of these ogres.

More pointedly, this rushed Biden-era reinvention of the arsenal also involves the development and deployment of exotic nuclear-armed drones, drone swarms, hypersonic gliders, undersea drones, and artificial intelligence counterforce systems—all of which elude any current arms control verification regime and completely destabilize what equilibrium used to exist in structures of early warning and reciprocal transparency.

These Pentagon initiatives will certainly kick-start a new round of international arms race frenzy. These developments were summarized by the Washington Post in an article headlined “The Pentagon plans anew to head off an old worry: nuclear war.” Of course, what the Post writer seemed not to grasp was that such “Pentagon plans” are certain not to “head off” the old worry, but to bring it back full force.

All of this dire new war-gaming by the U.S. brass made clear that hard-boiled American nuclear strategizing was back—a final undoing not only of Obama’s first dream of abolition, but also of the Reagan-Gorbachev mantra: “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” As the Air Force designation of the Sentinel suggests, lip service was still paid to the dogma of deterrence, but the actual planning involved in these advanced weapons systems envisioned not only fighting the war, but winning it.

Even as strategists worried about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, a nearly 40-year era of nuclear arms reduction efforts was drawing to a close, without almost anyone noticing what had happened. The United States and Russia had already pulled out of all nuclear agreements except New START, which caps deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550. Even that wildly over- abundant limit is set to expire in 2026, which closes out the maximum extension permitted by the treaty. As of now, the prospects for successor agreements, given Moscow’s certain-to-be-prolonged isolation, are close to nil. One national security expert, reflecting on the likely consequences of the war in Ukraine, warned of a coming “arms control dark ages.”

And if the Trump years, especially their disconcerting last weeks, had laid bare the fragility—even irrationality—of the American nuclear command, control, and communications structure, the Russian military debacle in Ukraine was making plain that the comparable Russian structure of nuclear management was almost certainly even more unreliable.

If Russia could not deliver unspoiled ready-to-eat meals to its troops under siege or fuel to its stalled tanks in Ukraine, what were the chances that the Kremlin’s highly complex nuclear control mechanisms were being properly maintained? With the corruptions and inefficiencies of the Russian military’s high command exposed for all to see in Ukraine, what of the nuclear arsenal’s unlock-and-launch authorization codes for which that same command is responsible? Are Moscow’s cluster of orbiting satellites and space-based radars on which all early warning depends able to be sustained as Russian technologies are universally degraded by sanctions? There is no star-sighting navigation or global positioning system without microchips—to take a conspicuous example—and sanctions have abruptly cut Russia off from its main chip suppliers. How long before that shortage shows up in the performance of precision guidance systems? Of launch safety protocols? Russia marked May Day—May 1, 2022—by announcing its withdrawal from the International Space Station—almost certainly less a manifestation of wartime pique than of incipient atrophy.

With massive failures of discipline and morale apparent in the Russian military at its most critical point—that of blood combat—what are the chances that discipline and morale in the Russian “strategic rocket forces” are properly administered? Putin has at his command a stockpile of approximately 4,477 warheads, with more than 1,500 deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, effectively all on hair-trigger—able to be launched within minutes. But these complexes are maintained, controlled, and operated by many thousands of human beings, any number of whom might strike a nuclear match. How are they doing?

Competing with the likely physical, technological, and organizational degradations of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal and its guardians for the claim to greatest source of danger is the primal question of Vladimir Putin’s own personal stability—and of his moral character. Such a double-barreled precariousness must concentrate the mind of anyone who takes it in.

It focused my mind, for sure. Washington and Moscow have resumed their devil’s dance, but with a potentially fatal difference from the bygone era. 

During the Cold War, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union, in the words of McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser to John F. Kennedy, possessed the “suicidal frenzy of expansion or despair” that had characterized Adolf Hitler’s Germany. One needn’t equate Putin with Hitler to recognize what nihilism can grip the will of a wartime leader faced with essential failures even short of humiliating defeat, and, alas, that measure has frightening relevance here. As the war shifted into a phase of hurting stalemate, with the Ukrainian military and highly mobilized civil society maintaining the strategic advantage that naturally belongs to defenders, and with Vladimir Putin incapable of settling for less than something that could be perceived as a victory, the question became clear. After Russia’s disastrously misconceived northern campaign, would a so-called “liberation” of the Donbas in the east—a mere expansion of territory that had already been controlled by Russian-backed separatists before the invasion—be enough for him? If not, how far up the ladder of escalation would he go?

No one could say. Putin owned the problem, but the world owned the peril. This man, after all, had found it rational to launch his assault against Europe’s second largest country in land mass, and sixth largest in the number of people—an act that was guaranteed to unite a coalition of more than three dozen nations against him. Ukraine, it had become clear, was not going to yield. However much pundits, politicians, and government spokespeople refused to look at it directly, with Putin holding the initiative there was simply no way to remove the nuclear peril from the range of the all-too-thinkable. Really thinkable for the first time in 50 years.

Speaking for myself, that fresh rush of possibility relativized the ambivalence and regret I had myself been feeling, in light of Ukraine’s just war, about my own lifetime of antiwar dissent. This Putin-induced nuclear hazard may have been an unlikely near-term outcome as the summer of his war rolled into autumn, but by resetting the worldwide nuclear trigger to the point of release at the slightest pressure, it had already relativized every other danger facing the human future. 

Since my early twenties, when I watched my father share the lead in preparing for a calamitous war against Moscow over missiles in Cuba that he himself, as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had first flagged, I have opposed that apocalypse. I tried, in small ways, to help stop its coming. However insignificant my efforts, that opposition has defined me. I was born in January 1943, the month that the atomic bomb laboratories opened in Los Alamos, so my age and the nuclear age can be said to match exactly.

During the early sixties war scares over Berlin and Cuba, I left college (abandoning my impending Air Force ROTC commission) to embrace a religious vocation I imagined as the antidote to the final ruination of Mutual Assured Destruction. In effect, the draft summons to which I responded was peace. But finally, after all of this Ukraine-generated second-guessing of my long embrace of antiwar dissent, the perils attached to Vladimir Putin returned me to the starting point of this cursed preoccupation—to the heart of the matter of my own life.

Dissent again.

The West—in rallying to the valiant Ukrainian fighters, Ukraine’s courageous people, its heroic leader, and the underlying values of liberal democracy—had not only opened its armories, but had set loose its own war parties. In the United States, in particular, the dream of global domination that had only recently been dashed in Afghanistan and Iraq was being held high once again by pundits and politicians, with America re-anointing itself as the indispensable nation.

After a few months in which the United States, chastened by those 20 years of misbegotten aggression, had seemed ready to trade hard power for soft, military sway for diplomacy, hubris for humility—the measure of America’s core meaning had promptly recentered itself within the five-sided building on the Potomac. Within a month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. troop presence in Europe was increased from less than 60,000 to more than 100,000, and that was only the start. Temptations to military overreach could once more be recast not as snares but as opportunities. As the budgetary curbs on U.S. and NATO defense spending went the way of warm feelings for Russia, so did the yearning for another basis of America’s global standing than raw power.

Within the Pentagon, that starter’s gun was heard loud and clear for the next heat of the building’s own internal arms race—the ferocious sibling rivalry among the U.S. service branches. Once more began the perennially record-setting budget competition that sets the Air Force, Army, and Navy against each other, with the new Space Force thrown in to accelerate the contest.

But that starter’s gunshot, like Lexington’s, was heard round the world. The global arms race was back on.

Yet despite all these other martial manifestations, the primal fact of the Pentagon’s origins reasserted its dominance. I referred just now to my own being born as the atomic bomb labs were opened in Los Alamos, but in those same days, too, the new War Department building was formally dedicated. The Pentagon and the bomb were born together, and the building’s engine room, in effect, has purred on ever since with the splitting of atoms. Even if obliquely, nuclear war—the threat of it, the fear of it, the economics of it, the culture of it, and, above all, the planning for it—defined American power for the last half of the twentieth century. And it still does.

Pressed by anxieties arising from the crisis in Ukraine, America’s allies, as well as more openly “neutral” nations, seemed ready to resume the old bargain—an agreement to look the other way as once again an “international order” was constructed on the slim chance that the nuclear compact would not lead to the death of civilization.

Here was an irony for the ages: Putin’s aggression was destroying cities, but it was also destroying what was left of the nascent impulse to move away from the absurdly named “Balance of Terror.” Not only was Europe undergoing a crash program of rearmament, it was doing so under the explicit rubric of subservience to American power, centered on the threat of nuclear war.

This unleashed air of mass belligerence, with its rush to re-embrace the house-of-cards illusions of “deterrence,” might have seemed like a simple given of an urgent new situation, a necessary consequence of wholly justified resistance to the tyrant-murderer. But embedded in this irony was an epiphany, even if in the moment it was not widely reckoned with as such. 

How to name it without sounding like Cassandra, without the old moralizing self-righteousness? The great unveiling of the War in Ukraine was, for those who would see it, a fresh laying bare of the most important fact of the reconceived human condition: nuclear deterrence is not protection. 

It’s the threat.

James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.